Category: Theory

My Personal Learning Theory

I came across a wonderful graph of Learning Theories, that maps and links key scientific disciplines, theories, concepts, and paradigms.

It got me thinking about my own ideas about teaching and learning and where they came from. I am very lucky to have had such wonderful piano teachers in high school and university – their teaching style influences me to this day. Sandra taught me that playing could include emotion, and helped me realise that I needed to make choices about phrasing and dynamics. She introduced me to wonderful repertoire and tailored my lessons to my needs. Ben wrangled my technique into shape and brought a more sophisticated sensibility to my over-emotional playing – less Mills and Boon, more Jane Austen. I went on to do a Bachelor of Teaching where I was exposed to many pedagogical theories; and although they were in a classroom context I have absorbed them into my instrumental teaching method.

These are some of my views on teaching instrumental music. Please note that I approach classroom music in a different way.

When learning an instrument you are learning a set of specific technical skills, and music is based on several key concepts (key, pitch, rhythm etc). Learning a set of discrete skills and specific knowledge is what Instructivism is all about. Learning and information flows from the teacher to the student and is fairly non-negotiable (The flat sign means this, this note is… play it this way, hold your hands like so). It is an Instructivistic technique to make the learning sequential, and I carefully construct lesson sequences that introduce students to new concepts, and then build upon that knowledge.
I cherry-pick from instructivism as it has many, many negative qualities that I don’t need in my lessons. Instructivism is quite rigid in the delivery of lessons that are carefully graded from simple to more complex whereas I am very flexible in my lessons and respond to student needs and interests. Instructivism provides little room for self-discovery and reflection, whereas I use reflection as a vital learning tool, and I make sure to include imporvisation/composing and student choice pieces in my teaching.

Experiential Learning
This can also be described as “learning through reflection on doing”, and is how I like to teach my students to practise at home. Step one is to choose a piece or section to work on (one page, one line?) and step two is to know what questions to ask yourself – was my articulation clear? Where did the melody peak, and did my dynamics assist that? did I play the correct chords? was my rhythm in time, should I check with a metronome? It needs an incredible amount of discipline to do this unaided by a teacher, especially for young children, so all my students are apprenticed into this way of thinking, starting out with simple instructions “play twice and sing note names”, progressing to “work on B section line 2, clear staccato in RH”, progressing to a conversation in the lesson on what could be worked on or achieved in practise time.

Learning Styles
Teaching in a one-on-one situation is such a privilege, and it makes it so easy to tailor every lesson to the students needs and interests. Some students like to make up their own note-rhymes, some learn best from flashcards, some learn a piece by listening, others by reading the notes, others by watching their own hands. No matter what your learning strength is though, I will also make you work on your weaknesses!!  Even the students with perfect sight-reading have to memorise a piece or two, and those that can play effortlessly after hearing a piece a few times must also learn to read music competently.

Zone Of Proximal Development
The ZPD is the area of skill or learning that is just on the horizon between what you know and can do, and what is currently difficult and confusing. It is very important to know where this is for each student, otherwise the lessons risk becoming too easy and boring, or too challenging and overwhelming. I like to make sure I keep mainly in the ZPD, with at least one piece being very easy, giving the student instant gratification and confidence, and allowing me to work specifically on things such as dynamics/phrasing/technique without worrying about learning the notes first. Working in the ZPD is where scaffolding becomes very important.

 A scaffold is a support that is gradually removed as it is no longer needed. I am a very supportive teacher – I make sure that students have confidence in themselves, and confidence that they will be able to achieve the tasks that I ask them. (And confidence that making mistakes is OK) For all students I employ good scaffolding to their learning: I support the student while concepts and tasks are new, and as they learn the skill/idea I remove my support until they can master it independently. To this end I promote what I call “good learner behaviour” – I remind students that when learning a new piece it is good to pause and check the notes if you are not sure, I encourage students to use their ears and if it sounds wrong to double check the notes themselves, I ask them to identify the difficult bits and then play those through before beginning the piece, I ask them to identify any repeated rhythmic or melodic motif that could help them learn the piece a little quicker. And of course good learner behaviour changes as you master a piece – after learning the notes you should then try to push yourself to not have any pauses or gaps etc.

Mastery Learning
The Mastery Learning system is really meant for classroom application. When you get to have a student one-on-one the ideals of Mastery Learning come so easily; every student has as much time and support as they need to achieve their goal, students properly learn one concept before moving on to the next level, and formative evaluation is done almost at every turn.
At it’s heart, Mastery Learning assumes that every student can achieve, and that by allowing the student to achieve success, the student develops greater confidence and feels positive about the learning experience.

Enhanced Discovery Learning
“Discovery learning can occur whenever the student is not provided with an exact answer but rather the materials in order to find the answer themselves.”
I always do improvising and composing with my students – this is a great time for them to dive in and start “learning by doing”. This is only after I have the students full confidence, and we have established the lesson as a ‘safe space’ where mistakes are fine. The students are supported to branch out and explore sound, and the learning is really directed by themselves as they discover sound combinations, and play with and manipulate melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, key, mood, tone, and texture.

Rote Learning
Rote learning is boring and disconnected from any meaningful learning, but I do use it sparingly in conjunction with other methods to learn how to read notes, and theory/composer information when preparing for exams.

Tones and Semitones

Musicians should learn to identify and play/sing intervals on demand.

The semitone is the smallest interval in Western music. Example: C-C#, F-E, G#-A. On a piano this is achieved by playing the neighbor note, whether white or black. On a guitar it is the next fret up or down that produces a semitone.

A tone is equal to two semitones. Example: C-D, F-Eb, G#-A#. On a piano, just play up or down two semitones (skip the middle one). On a guitar play up or down, skipping one fret.

Here are two videos showcasing the Chromatic and Whole Tone scales.

Chromatic and Whole Tone Scales in C (mid-range voices) Watch on Youtube

Chromatic and Whole Tone Scales in G (low voices) Watch on Youtube


Learning the 7ths

Learning the different seventh chords can be tricky.

Before you start out, make sure you know your major and minor triads, and the maj 7th (C-B), min 7th (C-Bb), and dim 7th (C-A) intervals.

I do love tables and graphs,so here’s one I made that may help you.

Name In C Notes Description
Dominant Seventh C7 (V7 of F) C E G Bb Major triad and a minor seventh
Major Seventh Cmaj7



C E G B Major Triad and a major seventh
Minor Seventh Cm7 C Eb G Bb Minor triad and a minor seventh
Half-diminished Seventh Cm7b5



C Eb Gb Bb Diminished Triad and a minor seventh
Diminished Seventh Cdim7 C Eb Gb A Diminished Triad and a Diminished seventh

Note Naming Online Games

The faster you can learn to read notes the easier it is to play them! Here are a few online free resources you may want to investigate. Play one of these games for five minutes a few times a week while you are learning to read music.

Note Identification
I love this one, as it lets you hear the note when you get the answer – it is so important to associate the symbol, the name and the sound all together. The Music Theory website has a whole host of great theory games that are worth checking out.

Name That Note
This is great in that you can choose the clef and and beginner/intermediate/advanced level.

The Note Name Game from Classics For Kids
In this game you drag the letter over to the note and spell a word. I like that you can hear the note when you drag it across.

Ms. Garrett from Music Tech Teacher has a whole heap of music theory online games. Some are better than others.
Travel Through Treble Space
Treble Clef Word Warrior
Bass Clef Word Warrior

Musical Notes has the notes moving across the screen which really puts the pressure on for students who are reading music well. I’m not sure if you can change out of Treble Clef though.